Read by Celia Cockburn
The Hop Exchange is one of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the South Bank/ Southwark area. In fact, Southwark was for centuries associated with hops, breweries and coaching inns with the local area being the centre of London’s brewing industry. All road traffic from Kent, Surrey and Sussex came through Southwark with Borough High Street and Old London Bridge the only land route from the south into the city until as late as 1750. Eventually traffic began to by-pass the Borough as hops were transported by railway to London Bridge Station, or by boat up the River Thames.
The Conway library image CON_B04088_F001_008 draws your attention to the portico and the tympanum, with the hops and malt crop depicted either side of the ‘hop picking’ central scene, indicating the importance of this industry to London. This building was designed by R. H. Moore and built in 1866-67, and although it is neoclassical in design this was not just an idealised vision of ancient agriculture: in reality the same hop picking scene was visible in the fields of Kent until the late 1950s.
Traditionally, the impoverished local population and Londoners would descend on the Kent hop farms. This ritual saw mainly women and children (with male overseers) hop-picking for a few weeks every year to supplement their meagre income.
The tympanum (the decorated area) clearly shows the long hop bine hanging from above, being pulled or cut down for the women to pick the hop flowers. (Hops have ‘bines’ rather than ‘vines’, with ‘hairs’ rather than tendrils to help them climb).
This Pathé newsreel gives an excellent and accurate account of the process of hop-picking and an insight into the so-called ‘holiday spirit’ of the families who travelled to the hop fields to bring the harvest home.
The photograph in the Conway library of the Hop Exchange portico is not ‘picture perfect’ in many ways: it is oddly cropped and at something of an uncomfortable angle. However, I chose it as a starting point for this blog for several reasons. Born and bred in Kent, I have fond memories of hop-picking with my grand-mother, with the smell and the beauty of the hops and making mud pies with other children. Almost sadly, within a few years, mechanisation was to spell the end of this labour-intensive tradition. On reflection, it is also an indication of the vast improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Post-war Britain, with food rationing coming to an end, an increase in the social housing building programme and a society who wanted better for the next generation.
It is ironic that this beautiful grade 2 listed building actually had a very short life as a trading floor for the hops and the brewing industry. Some hop firms did rent the offices within the Hop Exchange but it was built too late to be effective or profitable and fell into disuse in the early 1900s. To understand why, we need to understand the industry. The building had eleven storage areas and was intended to be used as a single market centre for dealers (like the Stock Exchange) where trade was conducted on the trading floor. The dried and packed hops travelled to London and were originally intended to be viewed under the gallery roof which provided the natural light needed, even if the hop picking season started in September and inspections took place in February and March. Unfortunately, for the Hop Exchange, the buyers acting on behalf of the growers – called hop factors – now owned their own showrooms and acted very successfully as middlemen. Just a little further south from the Hop Exchange there is still the façade of an original hop factor showroom owned by W.H & H. LeMay (No. 67 Borough High Street). Its frieze also shows a scene of hop picking. Within such showrooms hop merchants would buy on behalf of the brewers.
Selecting CON_B04088_F001_008 was also an excuse to showcase the beauty of the interior of the Hop Exchange. Southwark’s hops came from Kent and the symbol of their origin can be seen in this beautiful interior of the Hop Exchange. The main hall is a vast open atrium with three levels of ornate balustrades with hop plant ironwork decoration. The green of the ironwork contrasts beautifully with the red of Kent’s county arms – Invicta – a white horse on a red background, and the muted cream tones of the paintwork. The interior draws us in, almost envelops us – not merely to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and long-lost memories of childhood, but also inviting us to stand in awe of the Victorian design.
The Hop Exchange building exudes a confidence both with its name and design but what started as a ‘speculative building’ became too great a risk and the venture failed miserably. Originally the Exchange was two stories higher with a glass barrel-vaulted transept for natural light, but a fire in 1920 saw the removal of these damaged levels and the building was then used for offices. Acquired by a private company specialising in property investment, development and management in 1983, this company then restored and transformed the interior, changing the dirt and tarmac flooring (highly suitable for its previous trade) to a Victorian style replica. The building remains a general-purpose office and event venue, and successfully conveys a very functional, business-like environment.
There were many similar floor exchanges across London (originally eleven in total), including the Coal, Metal and Stock exchanges. However, wartime bombing, redevelopment and modernisation have left the Hop Exchange as the last remaining Exchange building in London. It remains a grand Victorian commercial building, gently following the curve of the then newly constructed Southwark Street, which had been laid out by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860 and opened in 1864. Although Grade 2 listed, its future can never be assured given the tide of demolition and facadism within the Borough of Southwark.